I grew up in a family that worked hard but also played hard. My parents insisted that we work, but our lives did not end there. They made sure we had balance, and that's where "play" came in.
At the end of a hot Arkansas summer, the next big event on the calendar was "fair time.” We started going to the County Fair long before I was a teenager. Actually, this event was one of the highlights of our year – second only to Christmas.
From what I recall, the Fair came to our neck of the woods long before wintertime and was there for an entire week in late October. During this time of the year, sandwiched between autumn and winter, the weather in our part of the country is fairly mild. It's an ideal time for romping around in the pleasant outdoors. We probably didn’t go to the Fair every night, but I’m sure we went more than one night – perhaps because Dad loved the Fair as much as we youngsters.
If we got anywhere near the fairgrounds, the first thing we saw (hovering over the site) was the huge, "welcome mat" – the revolving Ferris Wheel, flashing with lights and loaded with cheering riders. Even if Dad parked a mile away from the camp, we could still hear the loud screams and high-pitched laughter. With so much happy noise in the atmosphere, I could hardly wait to hop out of the car, dash toward the entrance, pay my fee and sprint onto the Fair ground as quickly as possible so I could hurry up and join the fun.
Photo: Fotolia/Lori Martin
This once-a-year event was exciting. There were always interesting people who traveled with the Carnival, and each year, I could hardly wait to see who and what was new with the traveling show. One year, there was a live band with scantily-clad, dancing ladies. The performance was professional enough to have been an Expo by itself. We silly girls stood as close to the stage as possible, listening, and laughing and making fun of the slim, trim, “go-go-girls,” and at the same time enjoying the most lively, upbeat sounds of pure soul music and good, down-home, guitar pickin’ that I had ever heard. The players were some of the most talented, amateur musicians west of the Mississippi.
Everybody in our family went to the Fair. How could anyone in his or her right mind miss this fabulous event? While we older children were "tied" to our younger brothers and had to keep an eye on them, still we had fun with them tagging along. The Merry-Go-Round wasn't my favorite sport, but if the little ones wanted to ride it, which they eventually did, some older person had to hop on with them. While we didn’t really want to, at least, we big chaperones got a free, slow, music-filled kiddy ride.
While I liked all the "rides," I think the Ferris Wheel was my favorite. This big, steel wheel was a challenge for me since I am afraid of heights. At that time, I had never flown in an airplane and was not too fond of anything that took my feet off the ground. However, as chicken as I am, I still wanted to take a spin toward the dark, blue sky. Once the “Wheel” began to ascend, there was a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. At the same time, it was exhilarating to rise above the crowd and stare down on the earth, like a gondola suspended in midair. While I was temporarily on top of the world, I couldn't help but think, "What if this thing breaks?" Luckily, it stayed intact, and I'm still here, having survived those flights and those tormenting thoughts that were mere scare tactics.
Another favorite activity was a ride in the “road rage” cars. Only older teens and adults were permitted to swirl around in the bumper cars. So our little brothers had to stand outside and watch while we older children bumped around like old tin cans blown by a mad Arkansas wind storm. The goal of riding in that small, twirling, armor-like car (on the round, walled-in arena) was trying to avoid crashing into another car, which was inevitable. Eventually the big bang came and “wham.” Your car crashed into a pile of other vehicles and everyone clapped and roared with laughter.
I suppose every fair has its favorite Haunted House. Most everybody wants to make a trip through that dark maze so they can experience the highlight of their week – getting scared out of their wits. I want to believe that the majority of thrill-seekers who go to Fairs are tempted to make at least one trip to the haunted house. Our “ghost house” was probably smaller than those in big cities, but I'm sure that what happened inside probably happened everywhere. That little, hastily constructed shack was well put together, and the fun and mystery it offered was no doubt on par with spooky-house entertainment in any other city.
Not one of us was brave enough to venture into that creepy cavern by ourselves, so we waited until a group of us scared souls was ready to head in. We were so scared that we'd hold onto to each other and, like a train with a caboose, we'd blindly wander through the dark, narrow halls. We wouldn’t get too far before those paid hands hiding inside started grabbing at our legs and making crazy noises to see just how badly they could scare us. Actually, I have to admit that those mysterious tormentors did a pretty good job at what they were hired to do. By the time we nervous souls exited, we were pretty worked up and not too eager for another trip inside.
Any get-together for our family was a delightful occasion for us country folks to get out of the house and go uptown for a spell. Subsequently, a Fair is just a good, fun time for the entire family. Our small but exciting Carnival was replete with exciting things to do and delicious but unhealthy foods to feast on, such as those big, fat, greasy hot dogs with mustard and chili oozing all over them.
I loved the cotton candy too with its soft, fluffy, sticky feel and too-sweet taste. This junk food, though tasty, is a disaster if that big, ball of cotton gets on your face, which it usually does. And the worst part was being caught without a mirror in your purse. If that happens, you had to ask someone, “Is there any sticky gook on my face?” which it usually was, so they had to guide you through the mechanics of cleaning your face – sight unseen. It's almost impossible to eat that fluffy ball without it getting all over your face, but that is part of the fun – licking cotton candy off your lips and fingers.
No Fair was complete without those tempting, gooey, lipstick red, candied apples, aka candy apples. We never got such fruity-covered treats any other time, so I always looked forward to the Fair. And even if I couldn't have a whole apple to myself, at least I could get a bite out of someone else's. This delicious fruit, overlaid with a shiny-like, lacquer glaze of sugar complemented the Fair and the fall season very well, since candied apples are a staple for this time of the year.
Popcorn may be somewhat bland when eaten at home, but it was a favorite snack while tromping around the fairgrounds. Just seemed like when you had something delicious to crunch on, walking and talking and looking seemed more enjoyable. An outing like that was about the only time we got those special snacks that only came with the Fair.
If everybody is like me, they admired those games where you had to hit the target (or drop the mechanical hand on the item) in order to win a prize. Those games are, no doubt, rigged to the nth degree. But even though we thought it was a sham, we still wanted to waste our nickels and dimes trying to win a teddy bear. It was so inspiring to see people walking around the Fairgrounds proudly hugging their beautiful "won" teddy bear.
That scenario brings to mind something that I read about county fairs, and in view of what I experienced, the article is believable. It stated that many of the games are rigged. For instance, the person you see proudly dangling that large, stuffed teddy bear may be one of the paid carriers. The Carnival owner employed them to walk among the crowd with their "paid-to-carry" prize in tow. Such display was certainly a temptation for other gawking patrons to go to the machine and feed it in a desperate effort to win one of those cuddly bears too, which, unfortunately, most didn't. For the most part, those losers only emptied their pockets of all their loose change and sadly walked away empty-handed.
While those accusations may be true, on the “up” side, a Fair was not all bad. It brought a lot of fun, diversity, entertainment and money to an area. And while it might have been a traveling con show, and while patrons may have lost a ton of coins in the "rigged" machines, that was considered part of the fun and games.
Additionally, the Carnival owner was a businessman. In order to keep his job, he had to come up with creative ways to make a living, and a little “rig” in the games was a formula that might work well for him. And if the games were rigged, I suppose he soothed his conscience (while digging into our wallets) with the justification that at least if he didn't bring the Fair, we would have been deprived of our once-a-year Week of Fun. So, I guess we’re even.
Fairs have been around forever. People love them and gladly attend them. The food, the people, the games, the fun and the stomach-churning rides made us look forward to the annual show when it came to our little, backward country town. And even if the owners left town with more money than the previous year, still, we were glad they come.
The last night of the Fair was the most fun, because we knew that it would be an entire year before the big exhibition park rolled back into town.